by Fredrick Fennell

Frederick Fennell presented a session at the Bands of America Summer Symposium, sharing his insights into one of his favorite pieces, Lincolnshire Posy. “There is no one on the planet that knows more about wind literature, or who has more passion and knowledge for wind ensembles,” says Paula Crider, Director Emeritus, University of Texas, of Maestro Fennell. Here is an excerpt from that session.

I was first introduced to the Eastman School after the First World War. I immediately made my way to the most important part of the school–the library for the orchestra and the wind band. I went to see what had come from publishers and in the stack I saw something that was a bright, wonderful green. I pulled it out and it was the score to Lincolnshire Posy. I sat down quietly, leafed through it, and then without saying a word picked it up and walked out. They didn’t get it back until I left.

Lincolnshire is unique and extraordinary in band literature. Percy Grainger was a man difficult to copy, with his own way of doing things. At the time, British folk song was in danger of disappearing and other composers urged him to take action. Edvard Greig, who had taken Grainger under his happy wing, convinced him that it was the folk song he should pursue.

Grainger first went to Lincolnshire, a county in Eastern England, in 1905. He arrived with a notebook and began to walk around, talking to people, who told him that it was the folk singers he should be talking to. He had the singers sing in front of him while he scratched down the tunes and words in a kind of musical shorthand that he designed, which he would transcribe every evening. The parchment that he wrote these notes on is in both the Library of Congress and the Grainger Museum in Australia.

He had only brought with him to Lincolnshire his notebook and some pens and soon realized he had made a mistake by not bringing something to record HOW the folk singers sang what they sang, what they did with the words. He returned to Lincolnshire in the summer of 1906, this time with one of Thomas Edison’s cylinder machines strapped to his back. I have one of these machines, along with some cylinders.

This time, he got it all: the songs, the words, the inflections. He brought back home many versions by individual singers of some of the great Lincolnshire Posy songs.

He did nothing with the songs until 1907, when he received an invitation from the American Band Association to become an honorary member and attend their meeting that year in Milwaukee. Grainger wanted to thank ABA for honoring him by composing a work for them. Out of this came Lincolnshire Posy.

He didn’t have much time to get something finished and, because he didn’t know anything about the band that would play the piece or their abilities, he was wary of writing something he didn’t feel they could play. He finished Movement I, Lisbon; Movement IV, The Brisk Young Sailor; and Movement VI, The Lost Lady Found to be played at the meeting. But the difficult pieces like the second, third and fifth movements had to be avoided.

The first of the Lincolnshire songs, Lisbon, is, like many English songs at the time, about sailors. Many “Graingerisms” are present in Lisbon, like the fact that he felt he “discovered” the saxophone, which nobody was using, except in jazz.

Rufford Park Poachers, the third movement, is a remarkably difficult piece of music, because of the frequent changes in metric signature. There are 59 changes in Version A alone. That’s how he heard Joseph Taylor sing it and that’s how he wrote it. Grainger wrote two versions, A and B. I asked him why he wrote two versions and he said “I had two different versions sung to me and I didn’t think I could be honest with just one version, so I solved the problem by making two.” I prefer Version A, which I think is the right one because of the key, f minor.

He used all his resources in this piece, like the soprano saxophone. Grainger came to the United States as a conscientious objector to the first World War. He volunteered for the Army and it was his job to play for war bond rallies. They’d drag a piano into the middle of Times Square, and he’d play. During this time, he had spotted a soprano saxophone and drove everybody crazy in the barracks in Fort Hamilton learning how to play it.

With the fifth movement, Lord Melbourne, Grainger knew he was going to have to do something different than had ever been done. As he was leaving Lincolnshire for the last time, headed for the train, singers came to him and said “Mr. Grainger, it’s wrong that you’re leaving Lincolnshire without the real version of ‘Lord Melbourne.’ The one you have is too easy, not like it is really sung.” He said, “Fine, then, who sings that song?” They replied, “There is a man whose version of it we all worship, but he likes to drink. He can only be found at the local pub.” Grainger who despised such smelly places said he would not go to hear him, but was eventually talked into it.

Grainger told me this story on one of my visits to his house, as we were in an underground bomb-proof shelter he had built during WWI to protect his manuscripts, which also stored his old army uniform, boots and backpack. Although Grainger was a very straight guy, he reared back and belted out the words to the song as it had been sung to him in Lincolnshire, drunkenly,

I am a noble Englishman
Lord Melbourne is my name
I never lost any battle but lost great victory…

Then he pretended to pass out from drink. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

He didn’t feel he could put the words to music in a 4/4 bar, or a 3/4 bar, or a 9/9 bar, or anybody’s bar. How he finally wrote it takes up the entire page and it came out the way he sung it to me and how it had been sung to him. The instructions to the conductor were: “In the passages marked free time, the band leader should vary his note lengths with the lilting elasticity so characteristic of many English folk singers. Give free reign to his rhythmic fancy, just as folk singers do, each note with an arrow above it being beaten with a downbeat.” No one had ever written anything like that, although later Stravinsky threw some similar things in his works.